This was supposed to be a week of celebration for the parents, students and faculty of St. Philip Neri School in Linthicum. Instead, the church family is trying to figure out why someone would try to burn down their school and sanctuary.
Firefighters were called to St. Philip Neri, in the 6400 block Orchard Road, at 11:23 Friday night. Thetwo-alarm fire was under control by 12:40 a.m.
Lt. Gary Sheckells, a fire department spokesman, said the fire was contained to a basement storage room, but there was extensive smokeand water damage to the first and second floors. He said there was water damage throughout the basement, the assembly hall and kitchen.
Friday's fire was the latest incident in a string of smaller fires and vandalism since July, said Msgr. Francis X. Zorbach, pastor of the church.
"Christmas night they set fire to the hay in the Nativity scene," he said. "Last week they set fire to the Dumpster and the trash cans. Two days after Christmas, vandals took the baby Jesus fromthe Nativity scene and threw it behind some bushes.
"We have had four 55-gallon trash cans burned up and we just can't figure out who would do that," Zorbach said.
Friday's fire ruined books, teachingaids, Boy Scout equipment, tables and chairs and gutted a basement storage room. It left the building without heat or lights.
Sheckells said investigators found evidence that someone had broken into the school just before the fire was set. He could not offer a cause and did not know if investigators had any suspects in the break-in or the fire.
A church official said it appeared two fires were set -- oneto gain access to the building and one in the basement.
A man walking his dog just after 11 p.m. Friday noticed that the church's hallway lights, usually left on, were out. He had his wife call Zorbach, who opened the church door and was hit by a blast of thick smoke. He closed the door and called the fire department.
"It was so thick when I opened the door, and I saw that it was coming from the school part of the building," he said.
Fire inspectors, the county police crime lab and insurance investigators poked through the debris over the weekend, looking for evidence.
Sunday morning, church doors andwindows were wide open and parishioners shivered through services that were supposed to mark the beginning of Catholic Education Week. Rented generators supplied electricity for the service.
The school administration had planned five days of guided tours, ice cream treatsfor the students, special assemblies and a 9 a.m. Mass Friday by Zorbach.
The school will be closed the entire week for repairs, said the Rev. Bernard Bak, assistant pastor, but teachers will be coming in to help assess the damage.
The building houses kindergarten through grade eight and a day-care center.
Bak said no decision has been made on the rescheduling of Catholic Education Week activities.
Ryan Webb, the rectory secretary, said a contractor would be coming in after the investigators were finished to see how much damage has been done to the floors and walls.
He could not provide a damage estimate.